The Public Defenders' Division was launched in May with support from California-based Pepperdine University’s Sudreau Global Justice Institute, an international human rights organization, and Ghana’s attorney general’s office and justice ministry’s Legal Aid Commission.
Its mandate is to "strengthen justice systems, defend the defenseless, and to train the next generation of law students to advocate on behalf of those in need," according to the institute’s website.
Acting director of the division, Nelson Mawutor Kporha, told VOA that since the launch of the program, the commission is seeing an uptick in cases even as it grapples with inadequate human resources and office accommodation.
"We are constraint in terms of infrastructure. Where we are, currently is nothing to write home about, and the lawyers are always complaining," he said.
"We are squatters on the ground floor of the Council on Law Reporting," Kporha explained, "And if this is addressed, I believe we will be able to do a lot for the vulnerable ones who come into conflict with the law and cannot afford the services of their own lawyers," he added.
The division expects to take on between 2,500-3,000 cases and looks to recruit nearly 100 lawyers.
Kporha also that in 2022, some 1,764 cases — involving juveniles, women and children, the disabled and persons accused of indictable crimes — were reported, 433 of which were resolved through assistance since the division was established this year.
The division has handled indictable crimes such as murder, manslaughter, life imprisonment and death sentences since launching.
"As at the end of the second quarter of 2023, we have received 600 cases and have been able to resolve 158 of them so far," he said. "But our human resource constraint is a major issue, this is actually my major headache.”
He says in the Greater Accra region, inhabited by 2.6 million people, there're only 14 public defenders, with seven responsible for criminal cases after three resigned.
Cameron McCollum, director of Sudreau Global Justice Institute at Pepperdine University told VOA that while it cannot provide answers to questions on the division's logistical constraints, "what we do have is great confidence in the Public Defenders' Division and the people leading the charge."
He said the establishment of the division "marks a transformational shift in access to justice" in the West African nation, which is "going to continue growing and will ultimately be a bright light for justice in Ghana and all of West Africa" because of the inequity in justice delivery in the region.
He said over 3 million people around the world languish in pretrial detention, and majority have no access to legal aid.
"The tragic reality in most jurisdictions around the world is that justice is often only available to those who can afford it."
"Our colleagues in Ghana are committed to supporting the Public Defenders' Division, and we will continue to come alongside them as this important project grows."
McCollum added: "Our mission and reason for existence is to aid our partner governments in achieving their own goals of broadening access to justice in their jurisdiction. We primarily accomplish that by providing pro bono technical expertise, training, and strategic project support to key stakeholders within the criminal justice chain."
Diana Asonaba Dapaah, Ghana’s deputy attorney general and minister for justice, told VOA that the ministry has "noted" the challenges bedeviling the division, saying "admittedly (infrastructure) could be better."
"It has been difficult, challenging trying to get the Public Defenders’ Division an office building beyond where they are," she said.
"As a short-term measure, the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice intends to accommodate the division when we move into a nine-story edifice in December which is currently in its completion stage."
Despite challenges, Dapaah said more than 37 lawyers have offered to voluntarily support the division to give fair representation to accused persons pro bono.
"At the Ministry of Justice, we believe that justice can only be attained where there is a fair representation and a fair presentation of the prosecution's case, as well as the defense case,” she said.
Prior to the establishment of the Public Defenders’ Division, Ghana’s Legal Aid Scheme, set up in 1987, provided free legal aid services to those who could afford representation in civil cases.
The division will now encompass criminal cases following the 2018 establishment of the Ghana Legal Aid Commission.
"Coupled with the fact that we are also initiators of prosecution, we felt that it is only fair and attains to all the tenets of justice where the accused persons — particularly persons who are unable to afford legal services — are given that opportunity to be well represented to present a defense across," Asonaba Dapaah said.
She said in-line with the constitution, the division’s mandate is to ensure an efficient and balanced delivery of justice.
To address the human resource constraints, she said ''there are talks with the Ghana Bar Association to ensure that offering some pro bono services is a sine qua non to renew solicitor licenses."
"And so we can only be hopeful that we have a number of hands on board."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with response from California-based Pepperdine University’s Sudreau Global Justice Institute.